FLORIDA SUPREME COURT

JUDICIAL ETHICS ADVISORY COMMITTEE

Opinion Number: 99-26
Date of Issue: October 26, 1999

WHETHER A JUDGE MAY OPEN A WEB PAGE ON THE INTERNET FOR THE PURPOSE OF AN UPCOMING ELECTION CAMPAIGN PROVIDING GENERAL INFORMATION TO THE PUBLIC.

ISSUE

May a judge establish a web page on the internet to prepare for an upcoming election campaign; and to provide general information to the public?

ANSWER: Yes.
FACTS

The inquiring judge proposes to establish a web page. According to his inquiry, the primary purpose would be for an upcoming election campaign. The site would also serve as a home page that would provide general information to the public. The inquiring judge adds that the site would not be used to answer any particular legal questions or to deal with pending matters in any way. The site might, however, have links to other relevant web sites such as the Florida Supreme Court or the inquiring judge's own circuit. The judge asks whether this would be a permissible activity, and if so, what restrictions, if any, would apply under the Code of Judicial Conduct.

DISCUSSION

Under Canon 2 of the Code, a judge shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the judge's activities. Under Canon 4 a judge may engage in activities to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice. Canon 7 provides guidelines for a political activity.

Nothing in Canon 2 suggests that maintenance of a web site would give the appearance of impropriety. Further, such a web site may well be of assistance to the public in understanding the law, the legal system and the administration of justice. As the inquiring judge recognizes, however, this site may not be used as a forum for the discussion of pending legal matters. See Canon 3B(9). Moreover, the site must not be of a commercial nature, and the judge establishing the site should avoid links to commercial sites.

The Committee also concludes that nothing in the Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits the use of an Internet web site for campaign purposes. A web site may be used for campaign purposes, consistent with the use of any other type of campaign literature or media advertising. In establishing the web site, as with other campaign activities, the judge must be cognizant of the requirements and restrictions of Canon 7A(3). This Committee is not in a position to authoritatively determine the applicability of section 106.143, Florida Statutes (1997), to the proposed activity. Nevertheless, the Committee would caution the inquiring judge to make a determination whether, and to what extent, the proposed web site constitutes a "political advertisement." Because section 106.143 covers political advertisements and campaign literature "published, displayed, or circulated, it would appear that a candidate using a web site for political purposes must conform his or her activities to the requirements of the statute.

REFERENCES

Canons 2, 3B(9), 4, 7 and 7A(3);

§106.143, Fla. Stat. (1997).

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The Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee is expressly charged with rendering advisory opinions interpreting the application of the Code of Judicial Conduct to specific circumstances confronting or affecting a judge or judicial candidate. Its opinions are advisory to the inquiring party, to the Judicial Qualifications Commission and to the judiciary at large. Conduct that is consistent with an advisory opinion issued by the Committee may be evidence of good faith on the part of the judge, but the Judicial Qualifications Commission is not bound by the interpretive opinions by the Committee. Petition of the Committee on Standards of Conduct Governing Judges, 698 So.2d 834 (Fla. 1997). However, in reviewing the recommendations of the Judicial Qualification Commission for discipline, the Florida Supreme Court will consider conduct in accordance with a Committee opinion as evidence of good faith. Id.

For further information, contact The Honorable C. McFerrin Smith, III, Chairman, Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, 130 West New York Avenue, DeLand, Florida 33720 .

Participating Members: Judges Cardonne, C. Kahn, L. Kahn, Levy, Rodriguez, Smith and Swartz.

Copies furnished to:
Justice Peggy Quince
All Committee Members
All Members of the JQC
Office of the State Courts Administration (Name of inquiring judge deleted from this copy).